CANNES – Only a few months ago, in the colder climes of the Berlin Film Festival, I had the misfortune of seeing and reviewing “A Long Way Down,” a terminally laughless British farce about four suicidal souls who meet and bond on the roof of the same popular London jumping-point. Some critics decried it as tasteless, but it was only the execution that was botched: there is scarcely a taboo subject that can't be made funny in crafty directorial hands, and along comes Jessica Hausner's deft, delightful “Amour Fou” to prove it.
A delicate, cerebral romantic comedy based on — wait for it — the 1811 suicide pact between German Romantic writer Heinrich von Kleist and his married ally Henriette Vogel, “Amour Fou” is neither romantic nor comedic in the uncompromised, mallow-centered fashion that has given the genre an undeservedly bad name. (There's going to be no Jennifer Aniston-starring remake any time soon, though my fingers remain firmly crossed.) Rather, Hausner's unapologetically small, exquisitely designed chamber piece plays as a gentle challenge to the ways in which we define love and dictate courtship — sometimes soul mates are found not through passion, but civil shared interest.
With a boyish, puddingy face that belied the more tortured impulses of his written work — most famously “The Marquise of O,” a novella that itself built a thorny comedy of manners from the fallout of a woman's rape — von Kleist was a writer destined not to be appreciated in his time. Well, “destined” is hardly the word — he didn't wait long to find out, having believed from an early age that life was something to be rigidly planned. Death, too: von Kleist was only 34 years old when he shot himself in the head at Berlin's Kleiner Wannsee lake in 1811.
Not, however, before securing himself an ally in this bleak but calmly organized project. Hausner's film introduces him as a tidily groomed, sweetly approachable milquetoast (played with deadpan guilelessness by Christian Friedel) whose pick-up line of choice is as unwavering as it is unorthodox: “Would you care to die with me?” he asks, his tone so cheerily polite that one might assume he meant to say “dine.” As one woman after another refuses his offer, beginning with his own cousin Marie (Sandra Huller), he seems as taken aback by the response as they do by his proposal: death, he feels, is not something to be dreaded, but to be comfortably experienced in pleasant company.
His luck, so to speak, turns when he meets subservient politician's wife Vogel (the beguiling Birte Schnoeink) at one of the whispery aristocrats' gatherings they both regularly frequent. Contentedly married, albeit to a dourly unromantic man, and devoted to her young daughter, Vogel initially rejects the question as flatly as everyone else.
But she's tacitly, visibly intrigued, and the young man senses a foothold: he asks her again the next time they meet, and the next time, and the next time after that. Hausner presents this wooing process as an intricate dance of decorum and flirtation straight out of Jane Austen; only the macabre motive feels amiss. Vogel bemusedly humors him without knowing quite where first base might lie — when she is diagnosed with a supposedly terminal tumor, however, she begins to consider his advances in a different light.
From this droll premise, potentially as dark and dry as blackened toast, Hausner spins a witty, unexpectedly touching meditation on the nature of partnership and the elasticity of fate — is von Kleist redirecting Vogel's path or part of it to begin with? And if they find joint peace in their chosen outcome, how much does it matter? As in Hausner's superb 2009 feature “Lourdes,” the tension between spiritual revelation and chosen belief is a fine yet crucial one.
Hausner's trademark formalism has never been more, well, formal than it is here. Evenly, exactingly lit by top Austrian cinematographer Martin Gslacht, Katharina Woepermann's eye-popping production design is so meticulous as to take 19th-century drawing-room decor into a realm of science fiction: the film's interiors boast enough densely patterned wallpaper, sculpted velvet drapery and finely dovetailed secret doors to make even Wes Anderson dizzy. (A regal posse of comically interrupting dogs is practically part of the design: the recurring camouflaged presence of one doleful-looking Weimaraner, popping up from scene to scene like a Where's Waldo exercise, is a particularly treasurable sight gag.)
Hausner's taste for austere, extreme artifice could seem an airless affectation in a less thoughtful film, but makes complete sense in a story so fixated on social geometry. von Kleist has designed his life no less lovingly or carefully than these gracious parlors have been, so cannot understand why his desire for mortal control is deemed so unseemly. The blossoming of understanding between him and Vogel — that to live and let live is equally to live and let die — is at once sad and peculiarly joyful; rarely in romantic comedy are the stakes so high, and the touch so correspondingly light.